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An Odyssey of Self Awareness: Considering the Conscious & Unconscious

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Hayley Reed

April 19th, 2007

An Odyssey of Self-Awareness: Considering the Conscious & Unconscious 

“He [a human being] experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest-a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our tasks must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

                                                             -Albert Einstein 

Albert Einstein’s discoveries were extremely influential to the evolution of how scientists study evolution and other aspects of the scientific world. He drew upon his own creativity to create scientific stories and motivated others to create their own stories. Among many other things Einstein also recognized that it is extremely difficult to tap into both the conscious and the unconscious. But, this difficulty did not deter him from wanting to dig deeper in the infinite abyss that stretches between the conscious and unconscious. His mission became to free himself of all constraints and actively seek a community of people that would motivate him to explore consciousness. In this quest of forging connections with other people he was able to see the true nature of beauty. E.M. Forester’s Howard’s End and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty are both extraordinary books that serve as additional springboards for discussion about the distinction between the unconscious and the conscious. The story of both novels sheds light on a particular binary that is composed of both the seen and the unseen.  

Any story of evolution would not be complete without including the story of human beings. Furthermore, since humans created literature it can be deduced that literature is actually a bi-product of evolution. By thinking of literature as a product of evolution a lot can be learned about both disciplines. Smith’s literary creation, On Beauty is essentially an adaptation that emerged in response to alterations in a literary environment. Smith is able to create a story that fuses a respect of tradition with contemporary issues. By incorporating such controversial topics as race, class, and gender she artistically continues the tradition of transmission of stories and displays her creativity.

As well as On Beauty is written it would not be fair to judge the book’s success by comparing it to Howard’s End’s success. Just as species that live today are not necessarily better then species that lived a 100 years ago, literature from the 21st century is not necessarily better then literature from the 17th century. Rather, species that exist today and species that existed during a different time period are simply different. The same can be said for literature from today compared to literature from the past. I find it very interesting that the dynamics of change are very similar across several different fields of academia including but, not limited to evolution and literature. While it is unfair to compare the two novels and label one as better then in the other it does seem generative to examine ideas presented in the two novels. A wealth of information can be obtained by distinguishing between the unconscious and conscious as discussed in explicit detail by both Smith and Forester.

            Smith’s commitment to understand the unconscious is in direct response to Forester’s neglect to look at the unconscious. According to the principles of biological evolution, for every action there is a reaction and in the literary world the same can be said. As a homosexual, Forester may have found it difficult to openly discuss those things about himself that he was ashamed of. Forster may have had a conflicted unconscious just as Smith did (and as we all do) but, he chose to deeply repress those emotions. Forester was so uncomfortable talking about sex that it is not mentioned at all in Howard’s End.

As readers, we can read in between the lines to deduce that in fact many of the characters were sexually intimate but, Forester himself did not feel comfortable discussing these relations. Helen and Leonard may have had sex but, Forester was not ready to discuss his character’s sex lives let alone his own. Smith on the other hand vividly describes the sexuality of her characters and sometimes provides too much information. In comparing these two styles it is fair to say that Smith is much more open and comfortable in her writing then Forester was.

 Smith advocates an alternative to Forester’s disastrous attempt to deal with his emotions. She suggests that both her readers and characters delve into the unconscious. Smith is able to find beauty in her conflicts and actively dives head first into the unconscious to get a better understanding of what is beautiful in her own life. On Beauty reduced to it’s simplest form is a commentary on the beauty of life. For Smith, there is beauty in the breakdown of the unconscious. In addition, the presence of beauty and/or the inspiration of beauty allows an individual to better understand the unconscious. The true power of the unconscious lies in recognizing our feelings and if need be detaching from them. 

In examining the unconscious Forester was aware that individuals often struggled with personal conflicts. But, Forester who was paralyzed with fear was never able to explore this idea on a deeper level. Smith on the other hand was more then ready to grapple with the complexity and often times, frightening reality of the unconscious. Reading On Beauty illustrates how open she is about conflicts between people and perhaps most importantly, conflicts within an individual. For all the physical intimacy between Smith’s characters there is not much connection between them. Smith is much more concerned with intrapersonal relationships. On the other hand, in Forester’s novel a myriad of individuals are attempting to connect on an interpersonal level. Characters are constantly searching for meaning and connection with other characters.

            There is so much to understand about the conscious and the unconscious that I am not sure that I will ever be fully conscious of all there is to know about these two states of being. All I can do is continue to critically analyze the conscious and the unconscious and reach out to people who can help me with my quest. In the process I am confident I will find beauty in myself, in the people around me, and in the stories I write to describe beauty. Science will remain for me a process of discovery of how to make sense of things and literature will remain a process of discovery of possible stories.